Two key Minnesota Vikings are singing the same refrain: Offensively, the Vikings are trying to do what’s best for the team.
That was the sentiment that both quarterback Sam Bradford and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur offered this week when asked about the challenges of generating consistent offense if a quick, short passing game is the staple.
Most believe that the Vikings will have to have that as their meat and potatoes of the passing game because of a battered offensive line – this week, center Joe Berger is out – but that taking occasional shots downfield is needed to keep defenses honest.
The question, with so many short passes over the last several weeks, is whether the Vikings trust their offensive line enough to let deep routes develop. The answers seem to be all over the board.
“I think that if the play is going to go downfield, it’s going to go downfield. Sam dictates that and we’ve just got to do our job,” guard Alex Boone said. “I think the offensive line did a good job on Thanksgiving. I think Sam only got hit three times or something. That’s three too many, but at the same time that’s a good defense. He’s right, though. If he thinks we need more explosive plays then I agree with him. That’s our quarterback. He’s our leader.”
However, ask Bradford about the lack of deep shots and he agreed after the Thanksgiving loss that more need to be taken. He indicated they weren’t in the game plan.
“I think if you just looked at our game plan last week, we just didn’t really have a lot of shots downfield,” Bradford said. “I think schematically it’s just kind of how we decided to attack them. I think after last week we realized that we’ve got to be a little more balanced in how we go out there and do that.”
Of Bradford’s 37 dropbacks last Thursday, only three were targeted 10 or more yards downfield, according to Pro Football Focus. He released the ball in 2.12 seconds on average against the Detroit Lions, and for the season that number is 2.36, the second-fastest release time in the NFL, per PFF’s tracking.
Bradford believes that have more effective play-action passes would help, but then the question is whether teams respect the Vikings’ running game enough to even bite on run fakes.
“To help the play-action we’ve got to be able to run the ball better and we know that,” guard Brandon Fusco said. “I think the running game sets up the play-action and gets defenses to bite a little bit for us to take those deep shots. I think it all starts with the run game. We’re trying to get this to work.”
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So far, it hasn’t worked well. The Vikings are averaging a league-worst 2.8 yards per carry and have only three runs longer than 15 yards.
One of the big issues is the state of the offensive line, where injuries have crippled their ability to create running lanes or pass protect for very long, and the play-calling indicated a lack of trust in the offensive line being able to sustain blocks for three or four seconds.
“Well, I don’t know about four seconds,” head coach Mike Zimmer said, pretty well cementing the perception that the Vikings simply don’t have faith the offensive line can pass protect adequately for a deep passing game. “Yeah, some of it is the design of the play. Some of it is trust, some of it is guys getting open. There’s so many different things involved there.”
Shurmur seems as focused on scoring points when the Vikings get in the red zone as much as he is on creating explosive plays. Of course, breaking out long plays might alleviate the need to make as many methodical red zone trips.
Either way, the offense inside the opponents’ 20-yard line has been another sore point. The Vikings’ touchdown percentage in the red zone, 46.9 percent, is fifth-worst in the league.
“I think the important thing for us is when we get down there - and we’ve done a good job of marching it down there at times - but we’ve got to do a better job of finishing the drives,” Shurmur said. “And I think that’s the challenge. I think sometimes if you overreact to what gets said after a game, but we have to do what’s best for us. And, certainly, we’re doing what we can to try to create explosive plays.”
Shurmur said the Vikings have “a lot of really, really good players that have skillsets that we’re trying to take advantage of,” but he and Bradford don’t believe the Lions were crowding the line of scrimmage to take away the short passes, despite the late-game interception that allowed the Lions to kick the game-winning field goal.
It may be a simple matter of trust, not just in the offensive line but that the receivers will make a play on a pass where Bradford takes a chance deep downfield. Apparently, that might be coming Thursday.
“We’ve been testing the waters this week,” rookie receiver Laquon Treadwell said.
For Boone, it’s simply about the offense setting the tempo after being a big reason why the Vikings have fallen from 5-0 to 6-5.
“It’s football. That’s why you love this game because you’ve got to play 100 percent balls to the wall, full speed or it will come back and kick you right in the ass,” he said. “We learned from this last game. We learned what we can’t do anymore. This week is going to really be to go out and set the tempo. We’ve got to hit them in the mouth and often. I look forward to a fun game.”